What we can do to curb emissions

What we can do to curb emissions

Are you up in the air about climate change and travel? We take a closer look at what the industry is doing to tackle the issue.


You’ve just stowed your cabin bag and switched your device to flight mode. Now as you prepare for takeoff, are you landed with guilt about adding more carbon to our overloaded skies? If so, you’re not alone. You’re also not alone in the sky right now. An average of 8,000 people every second board a plane, so you’re sharing the air with about one million other passengers.

Down on the ground, the United Nations has given the world a 12-year window to cap the average global temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius. To achieve this, as a world, we need to halve our total emissions by 2030.

But what can we do?

“Different people have different motivations for changing their behaviour,” explains Markus Terho, project director at Finland’s Innovation Fund, Sitra.

Terho and his team have studied and worked for two years on how to motivate individuals to make sustainable everyday choices. They’ve also developed a lifestyle test, designed, as Terho smilingly puts it, “to show people whether they’re a threat or an opportunity for the environment.” The online test, which has already been taken nearly 600,000 times, generates a slate of new behaviour suggestions, tailored for each user.

“We all have to eat, we all have to move, we all need to live somewhere, and buy products and services,” says Terho. “And all of these are linked to environmental impacts.”

Why do we fly?

We all have reasons for flying. Think about yours. You may have family who live far, or perhaps you’re travelling for work, maybe you’re living in the cold North and off in search of sunshine.

The Sitra study found that an average Finnish family makes only one flight per year. So, they have other ways to cut their carbon dioxide emissions that might have a bigger impact. “But for people who fly a lot, for example more than ten times a year, even a small reduction could have a radical effect,” Terho suggests.

Finnair’s Director of Corporate Sustainability, Kati Ihamäki agrees.

“We encourage our passengers to think about how often they fly and why. And we want them to travel as efficiently as possible,” she says.

To support this, Finnair has a service to help people combine different travel modes, offering a combination of rail and air services. “A rule of thumb would be, if it’s less than 500 kilometres, try to find a better alternative than flying,” says Ihamäki.

“Even simple things like direct ascents or descents during take-off and landing can make flying more efficient.”

Finnair wants to do everything possible to curb emissions, she asserts: “People tend to forget just how bad climate change is for business.” We all know how extreme weather linked to a warming planet affects air travel. Heat waves, freezes, flooding, hurricanes, and superstorms can all keep planes grounded.

Finnair’s climate action plan includes fleet renewal, operational and infrastructure efficiency, emissions offsetting, and biofuel. If you’re travelling right now on a Finnair long-haul, that’s good news for your carbon footprint. In 2009, Finnair invested in a new fuel-efficient fleet, which uses 25 per cent less fuel. “The numbers speak for themselves,” says Ihamaki. Backed by the new fleet efficiency, combined with operational actions taken during the period from 2009 to 2017, the airline achieved a 19.8 per cent reduction in emissions.

Optimising flight efficiency

Weight also has a dramatic effect on fuel use. Who knew that Finnair’s Marimekko dinnerware had been especially designed to weigh 15 per cent less than the regular collection? Seats, cargo nets, even our luggage in the hold, may seem negligible but, overall, they add up to fuel efficiency.

Finnair pilots have also been trained to find the right flight conditions. That can mean flying slower or faster, with favourable winds, avoiding storms, and optimising flight altitudes depending on air temperature.

“Even simple things like direct ascents or descents during takeoff and landing, instead of a gradual approach can make flying more efficient,” Ihamäki explains.

Advanced airports can play a role in this. Helsinki Airport has invested in three runways, making continuous landing possible even at peak times. It also helps cut down on runway taxiing time and flying holding patterns, waiting to land. On the ground Finnair’s headquarters have been designed to achieve the Leed Platinum certification in green building.

“But even with all these internal efforts,” Ihamäki insists, “we want to go beyond our own operational emissions.”

That’s where the carbon offset programme comes in.

Finding the best way forward?

Finland, along with 78 other countries, has voluntarily signed up to an offsetting programme called CORSIA, the first industry-wide compensation mechanism for managing aviation emissions. Starting in 2027, international flights will be required to offset emissions beyond 2020 levels either directly by buying biofuels or by purchasing carbon offsets.

Finnair customers can also sign up for a similar type of system. In the Push for Change service launched in January, the cost of offsets is one euro for a return flight within Finland; two euros for a return flight inside Europe; and six euros for a return intercontinental flight.

“We wanted to make it inclusive and give our passengers a chance to take part,” Ihamäki explains. Buying an offset will either support clean energy projects in the developing world or investment into biofuel.

“It’s in our best interests to solve the climate crisis inclusively and positively,” Ihamäki affirms.

Sitra’s Markus Terho also advocates a positive approach, with less of the negative mantras – Don’t fly! Don’t drive! Don’t eat beef!

“Know where your impacts come from,” he advises, “and what changes could bring the best gains, while still keeping life enjoyable.”

Text Laurel Colless
Illustration Pinja Meretoja


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